- The Poetics of Decline in British Romanticism by Jonathan Sachs
Jonathan Sachs's important new book on the literary and cultural significance of decline in England circa 1800 can perhaps best be thought of as a series of overlapping meditations on this famous passage from the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads:
a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cites, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.(qtd. in Sachs, p. 166)
William Wordsworth here registers anxieties about a Romantic-era sense of accelerating history and proliferating media, an enervating eventfulness, "unknown to former times," that print culture is documenting and feeding into an addiction. The result is "torpor," a decline towards savagery and lassitude that proves itself acceleration's counterweight. That double helix is central to Sachs's book, which runs brilliant dialectical engagements with progress and decline, speed and slowness, plenitude and evacuation, growth and ruin, the vanishing present and the deep time of the past.
Essentially, this is a book about temporality, about change over time. Sachs addresses decline as a function of Romantic heterochrony, or the complex overlapping time signatures of Romantic experience. Even as they grappled with new timescales of the earth's age, the Romantics felt that more was happening more quickly: their work registers complex reactions to the lived experience of more history (e.g., the fast-moving events of the French Revolution) tied to more media (e.g., the immense proliferation of print), and the onset of a modernity marked equally by the thrill of progress and the specter of decline. Yet for Sachs, that specter broods with possibilities: decline draws forth imaginative experiments and commitments that shape the future.
Sachs ranges widely through Romantic-era culture, unpacking its complex representations of time and futurity. Perspectival shifts are a common strategy or symptom of the era, whether they manifest themselves in the quantified time-series line graphs of William Playfair (which visualized change according to multiple timescales) or in Anna Barbauld's imagining of London as a future ruin, seen from the point of view of a traveler from the New World. The poetics of decline emerges as a network of such oscillations, often cast in the future anterior tense: what will our (accelerating, declining) present look like once the future arrives and we're history? Ruins recur frequently in such imaginings, as emblems of time's passage and its Ozymandian ironies. Along these lines, Sachs gives tour de force readings of the incommensurable timescales that structure [End Page 215] both Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812) and Wordsworth's "The Ruined Cottage" (1814). A prior chapter on "Acceleration, Print Saturation, and Media Time" places these poems within a larger field of Romantic print, allowing us to see them as deployments against the rising tide of cheap publications that were causing something like a cultural crisis in the early decades of the century. These ruins Wordsworth and Barbauld shored against the fragments of ephemeral, periodical, commercial print culture, and the decline from attentiveness and taste that those fragments both signaled and abetted.
If the Romantic era was a time of rushing eventfulness, involved with print media's amplifications, it was also marked by heavy investments in what Sachs calls "slow time," an "emergent literary experience" found primarily in poetry that would resist speed by modeling "habits of attentiveness," in keeping with Wordsworth's project in Lyrical Ballads (pp. 7–8). To this Sachs adduces the paleontological and geological research of Georges Cuvier and James Hutton (leading ultimately to Charles Darwin), with its emphasis on the vast reach of the earth's deep time and the slow evolution of...